The Nick Townsend column: Blue heaven with Jose's older, wiser brother in charge
England's loss will be Chelsea's gain as the hard man with a sense of theatre can take good football and more trophies to the Bridge
Sunday 15 June 2008
Finally, Roman Abramovich has landed the big one, a mighty blue marlin; that same quarry who, having been initially hooked by the FA two summers ago with a view to managing England, humiliatingly snapped their rod and made his escape. In doing so, the Russian has acquired the name he believes he and his club are due – Luiz Felipe Scolari, a man who when asked about his desire for success, will readily repeat something his son Fabricio once told him: "Do you know what second place is? It's the first of the last."
With such words in mind, many will assume that his attraction lies in him being a proven winner, and of the biggest prize of them all. Though Scolari has been successful at domestic club level in his homeland, claiming the Libertadores Cup with Gremio in 1995 and Palmeiras in 1999, before the 2002 World Cup with Brazil, one senses the Chelsea owner's capture of Big Phil is about far more than securing honours; yes, even that Champions' League which so tantalisingly eluded him in Moscow. As Abramovich once insisted: "I get excited before every single game. The trophy at the end is less important than the process itself."
Abramovich recently spent £80 million on art. He has now invested close to £20m on Scolari, who may be no oil painting, but who the Russian oligarch is certain will provide him with the aesthetic football he craves. He has placed responsibility for its composition into the hands of a man of whom he can boast to friends: "He's mine. My football is by Scolari," as if he was a Monet or Rembrandt.
Three weeks ago, this column posed the rhetorical question: who would want to manage Chelsea, and why would anyone continue to follow a club whose apparent sole raison d'être is winning titles and cups but isn't even doing that?
The first part of the question has been answered emphatically, and for many the second question may be answered by the very name of the new manager – the club's third since Abramovich's arrival in July 2003 – and the players Scolari could enlist, the likes of David Villa, Deco and Ronaldinho for a reported £100m, even though the club evidently remain locked into a policy of short-termism.
The self-satisfied noises from Chelsea over the past few days told you that completion of the deal was just a matter of time. Chelsea, and more specifically Abramovich, sorely needed such a coup. Though the Russian claims to be there for the long haul at the Bridge, there remains an underlying suspicion that his interest could easily wane. The appointment of the Portugal coach will regenerate his fascination. For the Brazilian, it will yield a different, more intense kind of challenge and, it must not be understated, the level of financial reward that he has eschewed for much of his career. Though some sceptics will ask how difficult is it to create World Cup winners from a team of Brazilians (the answer is, quite difficult; five Brazil teams have done it, 13 haven't), that element of his CV is a passport to just about any top job. With that in mind, he will be granted time denied others, like his predecessor Avram Grant. After the Israeli's brief reign, which ended in second place in the Premier League and Champions' League, Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, said: "Given the standards we have set, that's not something we have settled for." Whether Abramovich and his acolytes accord Scolari the auto-nomy he will demand is another matter entirely. The latter would not countenance interference.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Chelsea have hired Jose Mourinho's older, wiser brother. From Sherlock to Mycroft Holmes, if you like. True, he is no longer the character who was the constant bane of officialdom and who once told a referee in Brazil, "I'll wait for you outside," but he is still liable to histrionics. At 59 (compared with the 45-year-old Mourinho, pictured below), the years have mellowed Scolari somewhat, though he retains a fervent passion for the game, as the TV images from this European Championship readily attest. As with Mourinho,we should be prepared for theatrical gestures – he ostentatiously placed a ring on his finger ata press conference ahead of the Euro 2004 final between Portugal and Greece, signifying the continuation of his "marriage" to the national federation for another two years – and his lack of PC. "I don't talk to Spaniards. This is war. It is a case of kill or die," he said at the same tournament after an interview request from a Spanish radio station.
His genius lies in his perception of a game's nuances as it unfolds, and his readiness to effect changes if his initial judgement is wrong. One statistic in particular is worth bearing in mind: in those 2004 finals, five of Portugal's six goals were scored by substitutes. Scolari prepares meticulously for the opposition but does not burden his men with science. "It's not American football, you don't have to learn 33 plays," he says of what he expects of players.
While he is a strong proponent of the team ethic and a firm defence, he has said: "I would never inhibit the creativity of a player. A piece of improvisation could be decisive," though with Cristiano Ronaldo as a member of his Portugal team, he could hardly view things differently. He has described himself as "a friend to my players". His Port-uguese men of war, three of whom are already Chelsea defenders, will testify to the fact that his "friendship" is highly conditional, carrying with it the requirement to accept difficult decisions on their deployment. However, unlike Grant, he starts with that crucial advantage. He will encounter his players on that first day knowing that respect for what he has achieved will be undiluted.
Most likely to bring a premature conclusion to his tenure is media intrusion, it is said. After all, it was thought that Scolari rejected the FA's overtures because of that fact. Would the scrutiny of him and his family be any less now than it was then? Not a chance. But he knows the score. "Being a coach is a good job, but sometimes it's as if itis bigger than being a prime minister or president," he says.
It is more likely that the FA's timing was wrong, coming as it did in the prelude to the 2006 World Cup, when his mind was more attuned to Portugal's fortunes. Whatever his real reason for spurning the FA, his presence in England from 1 July will be an embarrassment to the organisation's hierarchy, who would prefer not to be remindedof that tragi-comic piece of theatre when they somehow lost their man. It was reminiscent of the occasion when BBC News 24 mistakenly interviewed a man in the studio whom they believed to be an IT expert but who was actually a taxi driver who had come for a job. In the FA's case, they thought they were getting Scolari but somehow ended up with Steve McClaren. (though maybe that is a trifle harsh after witnessing the manner in which McClaren's nemesis, Slaven Bilic, set up his Croatia team for that impressive defeat of Germany on Thursday night).
Will England's loss be Chelsea's eventual gain? If nothing else, it will provide a fascinating journey of discovery.
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